Sister Philomene Tiernan was on a spiritual high when she and 27 other Australians were killed in the MH17 attack, which claimed the lives of 298 passengers and crew.
The elderly nun was making her way home to Sydney after a sabbatical in France when the Malaysia Airlines plane was shot down by a suspected surface-to-air missile over eastern Ukraine.
Before boarding the doomed flight in Amsterdam she wrote to her good friend and boss, Kincoppal-Rose Bay principal Hilary Johnston-Croke.
“She had been on retreat at… the spirituality centre for the Society of the Sacred Heart and then she’d gone to Paris,” the devastated principal said.
“She’d gone to the shrine of… the foundress of the order so she was on a spiritual high.
“She was really looking forward to coming back. She’d had a great sabbatical. She was in a good space.”
About 200 members of the Kincoppal-Rose Bay school community, including students and their parents, alumni and nuns, gathered on a cold Saturday morning at the Saint Mary Magdalene church in Rose Bay for a special memorial mass.
“I can’t tell you how much she’ll be missed,” Ms Johnston-Croke said outside the church.
“She’s just so loved by our community.”
Parish priest Monsignor Tony Doherty led the service and afterwards told reporters it was difficult to describe the death of someone like Sister Philomene.
“Phil was a beautiful spirit in the midst. It will be like losing one of the closest members of your own family.”
“Let me not be glib and suggest there’s any simple words for this.”
Other nuns had been hit hard by Sister Philomene’s death and it’s hard to reconcile the tragedy of what happened to those on MH17 with religious belief, Monsignor Doherty said.
“That sense of evil crushing grace is the very environment in which we try to sort out what faith means,” he said.
“They’ll cope. They’re strong women but at the moment the tragedy is overwhelming.”
Sister Philomene worked for more than 30 years as teacher and director of boarding at the exclusive Catholic school.
But she was more than just a teacher, Ms Johnston-Croke said.
“She was a leading light and will be an incredible loss to the Society of the Sacred Heart, and a huge loss to our school community.”
The Society of the Sacred Heart has schools in 44 countries and all have written to or called Ms Johnston-Croke with their tributes and condolences.
“I’ve been getting email and texts from all over the world,” she said.
As the news broke on Friday, students expressed their shock and grief.
“The impact of this is just unbelievable in the whole community,” a year 12 boarding student, who did not want to be named, said.
“I feel like since we are all away from our parents she seemed like a grandma that everyone just loved,” a year 10 student said.
The school has educated many famous women, including Gai Waterhouse, Ita Buttrose, Lucy Turnbull, Princess Michael of Kent and television presenter Samantha Armytage.
“As a former @KRBSchool/Sacred Heart girl,very sad to hear about the death of Sr Philomena Tiernan in today’s plane crash. May she #RIPMH17,” Armytage tweeted.
“Many women incl my wife Lucy & daughter Daisy were inspired by the love of Sr Phil Tiernan RSCJ. God bless her & all who died in MH17,” Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull tweeted.